Celia Gilbert


Last Days


            From the very first moment, Edith took a violent dislike to Sophie Georgeopolus. The day-nurse Maureen Johnson, small, blond, efficient, had just put on her coat and come to say goodbye.

          “Mrs. Reade, I’m going now, I’ll see you tomorrow. Have a good night.” She patted Edith’s withered hand with its tobacco stained fingers, slightly adjusted it on the sheet and slowly and carefully fixed the pillow at Edith’s back.

          “Thank you,” said Edith with dignity. The humidifier spread its little puffs of condensed water into the air and left a fine white powder over all surfaces. The sides of the hospital bed were up. Not that Edith could fall out. She couldn't even move an inch; the cancer, multiple myeloma, was so bad. She had to be turned every twenty minutes to keep the bedsores away. When they sent her home from the hospital the first week in October, the doctors assured the family Edith had no more than a month, and now it was almost Christmas.

          A whispered consultation was heard outside the door. Her daughter-on-law, Olivia, entered, flustered, her hair pulled back in a ponytail, her eyes tense behind her glasses.

          The woman who followed her into the room stood big, broad and overflowing. Her simple face was coarse, gray hair pushed behind her ears, small brown eyes, and a flabby mouth where lips drooped slightly.

          “This is Mrs. Georgeopoulos,” said Olivia with an air of cheer.

          “How we doin' Edith?” asked Sophie in a hearty, indeed booming voice that jarred Edith in every fiber.

          Edith wanted to say I prefer to be called Mrs. Reade but she hesitated. She looked at Olivia as if to say, help me. Olivia looked away.

          “Can I get you something to drink?”

          Edith wanted something but not from her.

          “Put you up a little higher?”

          Edith made no answer. She tried to close her eyes but they didn't seem to want to close.

          “Well, you’ve got some pretty things here, Edith,” Sophie said, looking at the paintings on the wall and the brass candlesticks on the mantelpiece.

          Edith thought she could smell the animal odor of Sophie’s flesh envelop her. She had become horribly sensitive to odors. She felt her body slowly rotting, and she often asked Olivia if she smelled something bad in her room. Her nurses had taken to spraying a room scent to comfort her.

          When they sent Edith home the hospice people had come:  Janet, short, energetic, overworked, black-rimmed glasses and dark hair. Her manner was intimate yet professional like her second- in- command, Silvia, tall, slow, and punctilious.

          It was hospice that had to arrange getting in the equipment and the nurses although Olivia had to choose the nursing agency.

          Janet could only offer a three times a week check up on the medication. Hospice was the liaison with the doctor, and a certain amount of consultation with the nurses.

          In the kitchen, the nurses wrote their daily notes in the log. They worked three shifts. They came and went. Edith would just get used to one nurse and then the nurse would have go to another case or leave because of her children. It was understood that if one didn’t like a nurse or a nurse was unhappy with a patient the agency would accommodate.

          At the same time the reality was that the nurses were in short supply and they were lucky to have them.

          Edith was so terribly ill that few LPNs could deal with her. A middle-aged West Indian had a back problem and left immediately because she couldn't pull Edith up using the sheet method. An Israeli nurse came twice but had difficulty understanding Edith. An older black woman arrived with a hacking cough; she, too, was an LPN. She wore gloves when she washed Edith’s parts in a way that offended Edith.

          So Edith lay, in the most personal act of dying, spread out to a public, shifting and changing like a tide ebbing and flowing, a time that stood still for her from moment to moment yet moved her along from day to day. Not that she wanted it to do more than carry her away.

          In the beginning, when the doctors had told her she would soon die, she trusted that her daughter, a doctor, would find a way to put her out. But her daughter would not. Nor would her son. They all stood by and let her be tortured and her anger rose against them all. Sometimes she refused to believe this was happening to her. She had never wanted to go on living after Bob's death. Now she cursed herself for trying to be a good sport and going on. She should have killed herself while she had the cunning and the strength. But she had hesitated. Hadn’t she had grandparents who lived to be a hundred in perfect health?

          When the mysterious pains in her spine began, then she should have done something but who knew what they were?

          She lay in the bed and cursed herself for being a coward.

          Olivia could see her mother-in-law giving off distress signals as Sophie stood by the bed.

          “I'll be with my mother-in-law for a while now, Sophie,” she said pointedly, “If there is something she needs I’ll come and get you.”

          “Why that’s nice,” boomed Sophie,” I know your mother-in- law will like a visit. They always do.”

          Edith and Olivia felt their hearts sink.

          In the days that followed Edith became more and more disturbed by Sophie’s presence. She wanted only beautiful things and lovely people around her. How dare they torture her further than they were?

        Her bed faced a window that gave onto a pine tree and on the window ledge was an amaryllis, brought by a friend of Olivia's. When it came, it was all closed up. Its big pod of a head crowned the main stem, a tight green purse, and along the thick stem some other swellings showed signs of things to come. Day after day Edith fixed her eyes on it waiting to see it move in the same slow motion of vegetable time akin to her body moving slowly to its dissolution.

          “Which of us will fulfill its destiny first?” she would whisper to it in the dark.

          She doted on Sara Green one of the day nurses, openly admiring her in front of Penny Richards, another nurse of whom she was fond, and who loved her as well.

          Olivia saw a strange look in Penny’s eyes, the day Edith said, as they gathered at her bedside for the changing of a shift, “Sara you make me feel so good because you are so beautiful.”

          Penny was plain, with slightly crooked teeth and sallow complexion, intelligent and caring. She had been devoted to Edith and had been there for weeks already. Olivia and she had talks often in the kitchen about the conditions of nursing, which were dreadful in the hospitals. Almost all of the nurses did stints in the OR at the big hospitals, and they told Olivia horrifying stories of the understaffing and demoralization of the nurses. For them being on home duty was restful and rewarding.

          Penny told Olivia about her mother who had been in the intensive care unit for weeks afraid to die, and then, when they brought her home, she stopped being afraid.

          So Penny watched Edith with a queer look, and then, a few days later, the agency called to give Olivia the name of a new nurse, who would be coming to take Penny’s place.

          Edith and Olivia felt betrayed. It was only later that a nurse told Olivia that Penny was suffering because Edith reminded her of her mother, who had died a year ago Christmas. They were getting on to mid-November.

          And now there was Sophie. When Olivia or Edith's son Jim or an occasional visitor weren't with Edith, Sophie would sit in a chair overflowing with flesh and good will.

          Edith would say, “Bring me some Jell-O”

          When the Jell-O came she'd say angrily, “Take it away. It nauseates me.”

          Or she would say to Sophie, “You have terrible halitosis go rinse your mouth.”

          And Sophie would nod pleasantly, go off to the bathroom and rinse her mouth.

          Edith would demand soup and when Sophie brought it she would push it away.

          Olivia was distraught. Edith had never had been anything but patient and polite her whole life, and now, when it was desperate that she have someone be there, what if Sophie walked off the job as Penny had?

          But Edith flared up when Olivia cautioned she might be hurting Sophie's feelings.

          “You can’t leave me with that woman she revolts me. Look at me! Is this the way I have to spend my last days?  She is stupid and smells and talks in a loud voice. She's thick, thick, thick!”

          Overwhelmed, Olivia gave up. She phoned the agency and told them that Edith was having trouble adjusting to Sophie whom she could see was goodhearted but what could she do? They must find a replacement.

          “It’s getting on to the holidays and we’re awfully short,” they said, ”Of course we will try. We don’t want Mrs. Reade to be unhappy; sometimes things are like that between people.”

          Edith went on sniping and snapping at Sophie.

          One day after Sophie had been sent out of the room Olivia followed to make amends. “She’s having a bad day,” she said apologetically.

          “Oh my goodness,“ said Sophie, bringing her voice down to a hoarse whisper, ”Don’t you think I mind. They’re all like that. They’re going to die, and we just try and make them more comfortable.”

          Olivia felt hot tears well up and leak down her nose as if she was hearing for the first time that her mother-in-law was going to die.          

      “Your mother-in-law’s a real nice person. So intelligent. You know she said to me, like she’s said to all the nurses, ‘I want to die and they won’t let me die. I asked my daughter, she's a doctor, and she won't help me either. I said to her, go on smother me; let's get me out of this. But she wouldn't, and I was counting on her!’”

          Olivia moved back as if she’d been struck. So Edith talked to them about the family.

           Just then they heard the spoons banging and clanking against the bed rails, Edith's preferred way of calling to them. They rushed to her side.

          “You’ve forgotten to turn me,” Edith moaned.

          “Gosh, I turned you twenty minutes ago,“ said Sophie. “Don’t you remember? Let me give you a back rub.”

          She powdered her hands, and her strong fingers began a deep massage of Edith's back, going over and over the spine.

          Head half-buried in the pillow, Edith said, ”This is the one thing she can do.”

          “Like it, Hon?” said Sophie, just as if she hadn’t heard.

          But next day Sophie’s replacement arrived. Marge Bascomb was of medium height, with long red nails, short black hair and a blank expression. She listened to Edith with a set face, brought her what she needed, and then retired to the kitchen. It was almost as if she were angry with Edith for not liking Sophie. She refused to wash the linens, which began to pile up

          Olivia objected, but she said, “It's not in my contract.”

          “But all the other nurses have.”

          “I don’t.”

          Olivia panicked. She became furious with Edith. If she hadn’t been fussy none of this would have happened. At night she lay awake listening to Jim's relaxed breathing and going over the horror of the illness, at first unrecognized three months earlier.

          She remembered how for many months Edith had said “It's funny, when I get up in the morning, I'm so stiff I can hardly move, but then I take a hot bath and the pains go away. I guess this is what they mean by arthritis.”

          And then it became harder and harder for her to get up from her chair, so they got her a chair that moved her into a standing position. And Edith smoked, did the crosswords, played solitaire, and read her mystery stories.

          Molly Riley a cleaning woman who worked for Olivia would do the dishes and fix Edith's lunch and dinner. And then, right around the time of Olivia's birthday when Olivia had gone to a retreat with friends, she got a call.

          It was Edith. She apologized profusely, but the pain was suddenly so bad she knew she must get to a hospital. Driving back that day, bursting into the house, Olivia called an ambulance and tried not to hear to Edith's screams as they moved her down the stairs.

          The doctors told them that Edith had multiple myeloma. The rapidly multiplying blood cells caused unbearable pressure inside her bones. They sent her home, telling the family she hadn't got more than six weeks left. So Olivia accompanied her home in the ambulance, ran up the front steps, and unlocked the front door. She motioned the men into the house, where a bed was waiting in the living room. The day before Edith's discharge, when Olivia had murmured something about being back in her own room, Edith had become frantic.

          “No, no, I won't, I won't be put upstairs.” She was in a rage.

          “But it's calm and quiet there.”

          “No, I remember in Pakistan when my friend Rani was dying in a bedroom away upstairs. No one ever came to see her, and she was completely cut off. She couldn't see who was coming and going. The servants walled her away.”

           Seeing Edith's anger against Sophie, Olivia was reminded of that day. How many deaths did one have to die while alive? Each moment was a relentless tapping looking for entry into a besieged building.

          They sent Edith home with a morphine drip attachment. She could press a button and it would give her a measured shot of painkiller so she couldn't overdose. Six weeks passed. October disappeared, then rapidly, the weeks of November leading up to Thanksgiving. The light entered more slowly in the window from which Edith watched the neighbor's house through the pine tree.

          At Thanksgiving came the long awaited visit from Dorothy, her daughter, the doctor, and Lewis her husband. Dorothy and Olivia had played together as little girls. Their families were of the same background, second-generation children of Jewish immigrants. They had earned scholarships and gone to good colleges and become professional people.

          To Olivia's surprise and dismay Dorothy stayed with her mother only a few days and then went off to the Cape for the rest of her holiday break.

          One day Marge left when her time was up without waiting for the next nurse on duty.

          “If she’s late I can’t help it. I have to get to my next case.”

          Olivia was so outraged she rushed to the phone. But then she paused. What if they got a reputation for being impossible to please? Who would take care of Edith, turn her, bath her, put her on the bedpan, and watch her pain medication? If Marge was hard to deal with, who would they send her next?

          Edith became restless, moaning that the new nurse didn’t give as good a back rub as Sophie had.

          “I'm afraid it's too late now, you didn’t like Sophie. You wanted her gone. It’s been weeks and you didn’t like her.”

          “Yes, but she could give me a really good back rub. And besides I as getting used to her. She can’t help the way she is.”

          Olivia wanted to scream then you shouldn't have complained so much. Waking in the morning, on the other side of the brick wall that separated their two houses she felt that she and Edith were drowning together. She remembered how much she loved Edith. The families had known one another since she and Jim were children, and once she said to her mother, if she couldn't have her for a mother, she wanted Edith to be her mother.

          But every minute she wasn't sitting with Edith, she felt guilty, and yet to be at her side grew more and more difficult, as if Edith needed to drain her to stay alive in this life that Edith didn't want.

          Olivia remembered, after her father-in-law's massive heart attack, Edith had said to Jim, “When Bob dies I'll commit suicide.”

          “Well I’m afraid it’s too late now to get Sophie back,” Olivia said almost raising her voice in frustration, ”We' re having trouble finding people as it is.”

          Edith sighed. She had never asked why Penny left. Before Penny there had been Ruth Parry. How she had she loved Ruth. They had talked about Ruth’s children, and how in a little while Ruth was going to stop nursing because her three kids needed her, but she loved nursing and didn't want to give it up.

          Edith advised her on her problems with the children. She remembered her happy days of family counseling, writing her thesis on child development so long ago. But then Bob had gotten the job offers abroad and off they went.

           When the morphine was just right and the pain somewhat under control, she thought about the nurses. She had had more company now than she had had for the long months after Bob's death. Jim and Olivia had tried, but even living next door she could feel the terrible strain of the burden that she had become. Hour after hour she did crossword puzzles and played solitaire for real.

          Now each nurse had a story to tell. Most of them were amazed and delighted to find a patient as sick as she able to think and speak. For the most part the patients they saw were so heavily medicated, they were incoherent.

          Edith had not yet gotten to that stage, although every time she forgot something her eyes widened in a panic. To lose her mind was the thing she feared the most.

          After three days of Marge and her refusal to do the laundry Olivia called the agency. “You know,” she said, ”I think Edith wouldn’t mind having Sophie back, but is it possible?”

          “We’ll do our best,” said the agency.

          Two days before Christmas Sophie walked in.

          “Hi Hon,” she said, coming next to the bedside and booming into Edith's ear.

          “How ya doin’? Hey, what a nice tree. I always like to see those candy canes. You got tinsel, too. Want a cup of tea?”

          Edith looked at her hard. There was a long pause.

           “I’d like a back rub,“ she said. “And, Sophie, if I was rude, I’m sorry.”

           “Gosh," said Sophie,  “No hard feelings. You got to get angry with somebody, don’t you?”

Copyright  © 2013 Celia Gilbert


Celia Gilbert is the author of four books of poetry, Queen of Darkness, Viking, Bonfire, Alice James Books, and the most recent, Something to Exchange, BlazeVOX[books], 2009. An Ark of Sorts, Alice James Books, won a Jane Kenyon Chapbook award. In 2009 a collection of her work appeared in a Polish-English edition in Warsaw under the imprint Czuły Barbarzyńca.

She is the winner of a Discovery Award from the 92nd St. YM-YWHA, a Consuelo Ford Award, and an Emily Dickinson Prize, both from the Poetry Society of America, and a Pushcart Prize IX.

Her work has appeared among other places in Poetry, The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Southwest Review, and Ploughshares as well as the online journals, Inertia and Memorious. Her work has been frequently anthologized.

Her art can be viewed at http://celiagilbert.artspan.com

Books by Celia Gilbert